"Am I in trouble?"
I recently walked into class to find that the students had conspired to tape the markers to creative locations throughout the room: the whiteboard, the ceiling, the clock, etc. As the moment was comical and without ill will, I laughed and went along in good spirits. I took down a few markers to use during the lesson, then afterwards I subconsciously felt compelled to leave a few markers stuck to their new and unusual homes. Perhaps it was to honor the students' comic work, or to implicitly communicate to them that our world needn't be rigid. After school, a teacher who shares the room asked me about the markers in a tone that was less than pleased. After explaining the gag to her, I opted to not be a source of inconvenience, and that I would ask the students not to tape markers to unexpected locales in the future. For the record, I think it's hilarious and it helps us take life less seriously. Nevertheless, shared spaces should be respected.
What struck me were the reactions of my students at my request to suspend their adhesive adventures. They asked the following questions, word for word:
"Did you get in trouble?"
"Were they mad?"
"Did they say what would happen if we did it again?"
Notice their obsession with the rules. This scenario gives us a priceless snapshot of the world through their eyes. Their world pummels them with rules and restrictions (i.e. "getting in trouble,") leading to a barrage of positive and negative reinforcement (i.e. "they were mad,") followed by a newly stabilized sense of what's allowed in the future (i.e. "what
if we did it again.")
I wonder to what extent adults grow out of this phenomenon, if at all? For instance, I admittedly fantasize of driving faster when it's really late at night and no one's on the road. Yet I don't, because I don't want the ticket. Clearly in this case, I am operating in the same system as my students. On the other hand, do I not steal at Trader Joe's because I'll get in trouble with the dude in the Hawaiian shirt? Do I think of whether he'll be 'mad at me?' Clearly, no. I have adopted a personal set of guidelines that transcend basic rules.
My point is for each of us to foster an environment in which rules transition to values. My reply to the students was a request, "Try not to think of the world as only a pile of rules on your heads. Think for yourself. If this room is used by other people who may need the markers, or if it's distracting to them, we should respect that the space is shared." Now in hindsight, perhaps I also could have said, "If you really would like the markers up there, maybe we can request to leave them, as our class signature, or whatever you want to call it." This type of reaction creates the space for the students to gain personal ownership over their situation, leading to their empowerment.
Our goal is to teach our students to set their own guidelines, based on values. Don't leave your trash... not because it's not allowed, but rather because picking up after ourselves is a core value. Don't bully... not because it's forbidden on the syllabus, but because it's immoral. Appeal to a higher standard, one that rises above rigid and impersonalized rules. As for me, I can start to think of not speeding at night as allowing me to keep better control of the car, or as being safer for myself and for those around me. The more we migrate rules from the paper form to the personal, the more fulfilling all our lives can be.